Saving on saves: Dodgers thrive with low-budget bullpen

During Ned Colletti’s tenure as the general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, a hallmark of the franchise was lavish spending on relief pitchers. A year ago, their Opening Day bullpen combined to make $33 million, by far the most of any team in baseball. To add pitchers in front of All-Star closer Kenley Jansen, Colletti shelled out big money to sign former All-Star closers Brian Wilson and Brandon League; even his idea of a bargain signing was signing injured former All-Star closer Chris Perez and hoping he would return to his prior form.

Colletti valued experience and track record, going after guys who were on the downsides of their careers, but had been effective ninth-inning performers in the past. Unfortunately for him and the Dodgers, he routinely overestimated the shelf life of a relief pitcher, and ended up with expensive, ineffective setup guys incapable of getting the ball to Jansen with a lead. Last year, Wilson, League and Perez combined to give the Dodgers 157 2/3 mediocre innings, posting a 3.71 ERA and a miserable 4.17 FIP; they also combined to make $20 million among them, a total higher than 25 other MLB teams spent on their relief corps.

Last winter, the Dodgers replaced Colletti with Andrew Friedman and Farhan Zaidi, poaching two analytically-inclined executives from the Rays and A’s, respectively. Those two franchises have spent years building bullpens on the cheap, and not surprisingly, the Dodgers’ 2015 bullpen looks a lot different than their 2014 bullpen.

Gone is Wilson, released despite the fact that he exercised his $9.5 million player option for the 2015 season; the new-look Dodgers decided they’d rather pay him that money to sit at home rather than let him take the mound. League is on the disabled list with a shoulder problem and won’t be joining the team any time soon. Perez signed a minor-league deal with the Brewers this winter, and currently has a 12.71 ERA in Triple-A. Even Jansen, the team’s one actual good reliever from a year ago, has yet to throw an inning for the team in the regular season, as he had surgery to remove a growth from his foot during spring training.

From four closers to no closers in a year’s time, the Dodgers bullpen couldn’t possibly be any different than it was a year ago. And despite their lack of anything resembling a proven ninth-inning workhorse, LA’s bullpen has been nothing short of amazing so far.

The current group, listed with their 2015 walk, strikeout, and groundball rates (through Monday), are included in this table:

Name BB% K% GB%
Joel Peralta 6 22 15
J.P. Howell 11 26 58
Yimi Garcia 4 46 23
Pedro Baez 5 33 54
Juan Nicasio 16 32 54
Paco Rodriguez 8 33 57
Chris Hatcher 5 37 67
Adam Liberatore 0 33 67

This is a bullpen of extremes, with a pair of guys –€“ Joel Peralta and Yimi Garcia — who almost never get a groundball but make up for it by dominating the strike zone, and then six arms who pound the bottom of the zone to get grounders but have still managed above-average strikeout rates as well. And the amazing thing is that the Dodgers were able to build this group in about four days.

On Nov. 20, they traded minor leaguers Greg Harris and Jose Dominguez to Tampa Bay for Peralta and Adam Liberatore; this was Friedman making a deal for two guys he knew well from his time with the Rays. Two days later, they bought Mike Bolsinger — not listed above, but dominating Triple-A through two starts and likely an option to be called up if any of the current relievers go down — from the Diamondbacks for cash. Two days after that, they traded a player to be named later to the Rockies to get Juan Nicasio; the PTBNL turned out to be 23-year-old outfield Noel Cuevas, who hit .231 in Double-A last year.

Four arms picked up in four days for three mediocre minor leaguers and a little bit of cash. Two weeks after that, Chris Hatcher was included as a throw-in piece to the team’s trade(s) sending Dee Gordon to Miami, which brought Howie Kendrick as an upgrade at second base. Finally, then they spent the last part of the offseason trolling for reclamation projects, bringing MLB veterans Sergio Santos, Dustin McGowan, David Aardsma and Mike Adams to camp on minor-league deals. And then, when those guys got outpitched by the young kids in camp, they sent them all packing in favor of Garcia, Pedro Baez and Paco Rodriguez, mid-level prospects who had received modest looks with the team over the past few years.

So this is how the Dodgers bullpen situation breaks down now from a salary standpoint. Howell — the lone holdover from the Colletti era — makes $4 million. Peralta makes $2.5 million, which is why the Rays mostly just gave him away. Nicasio is at $2.3 million, a price the Rockies didn’t want to shell out, which is why he the Dodgers got him for virtually nothing. Meanwhile, Hatcher, Rodriguez, Baez, Garcia, and Liberatore are all making roughly the league minimum of $500,000. The eight guys currently sitting in the Dodgers bullpen have combined MLB salaries of $11.3 million, or about 58 percent of what the team guaranteed Wilson for what ended up being 48 1/3 atrocious innings.

And even without Jansen, this group has been incredible. Its 34 percent strikeout rate is best in baseball so far, far ahead of the second-place Cardinals, who come in at just 28 percent. Its park and league adjusted ERAs are 37 percent better than league average, tied for fifth-best in baseball, and it isn’t being driven down by good luck or stranding a lot of runners; its expected ERA based on their BB/K/GB rates is exactly the same 37 percent better the league average, again easily the best in baseball so far.

The Dodgers have achieved this excellent performance without adhering to any kind of strict roles either. Peralta is the de-facto closer with three of the team’s four saves, but he’s been brought into a tied game in his other three appearances, so manager Don Mattingly isn’t just saving him to protect ninth-inning leads. Baez, Rodriguez, Howell and Hatcher have been used mostly interchangeably to protect leads, each picking up two or three holds on the season, while Garcia is quickly moving himself into consideration for higher-leverage outings with his dominating performance to start the year.

With the team unlikely to carry eight relievers all year and Jansen due back in a couple of weeks, LA will have to send a couple of these guys down to the minor leagues. But nobody in this bullpen is pitching like he deserves a demotion, and Bolsinger — who projects as a very good relief option himself, if given an opportunity — is already pounding on the door.

A year ago, the Dodgers spent $30 million to assemble a group that had one good reliever in it. With that reliever on the DL, this Dodgers bullpen is pitching like the best relief corps in baseball, and it is doing it primarily with guys other teams didn’t want. The Dodgers’ financial resources give them huge advantages, but this was a bullpen built in the style of the A’s and Rays, and the early returns have been amazing.